How to Use our Time Well. A Conversation with Oliver Burkeman, Author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

How to Use our Time Well. A Conversation with Oliver Burkeman, Author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

The average human lifespan is absurdly, outrageously, insultingly brief: if you live to 80, you have about four thousand weeks on earth. How should we use them best? We all know there isn’t enough time… We are obsessed by our lengthening to-do lists, our overfilled inboxes, the struggle against distraction, and the sense that our attention spans are shrivelling. Yet we rarely make the conscious connection that these problems only trouble us in the first place thanks to the ultimate time-management problem: the challenge of how best to use our four thousand weeks.

Oliver Burkeman is author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, and a columnist. In his new book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver undertakes an uplifting, engrossing, and deeply realistic exploration of our battles with time. Adam Grant has described Oliver’s new book as being, “The most important book ever written about time management.” Oliver also recently launched a new BBC Maestro class. His course, Time Management, rejects our modern obsession with optimising productivity and instead celebrates the strategies proven to achieve a greater sense of balance.

In this interview, I speak to Oliver Burkeman about our relationship with time, and how best we use the astonishingly brief moment we are on this earth. Oliver draws on philosophy and psychology together with his own deep research to help realign our relationship with time, liberating us from the tyranny we face.

Q: How should we best understand time in context of human lifespan?

[Oliver Burkeman]: Our lifespan is 4,000 weeks.

I’m guilty of trying to shock people with the headline figure, because I do think that the broader message here is, I hope, quite liberating and even relaxing, but that’s the sort of second step of the argument. The first step of the argument is just like, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ when you express it in weeks, there is something ridiculously brief about even a long life and that concentrates the attention.

You don’t have to spend every moment of your week panicking, asking yourself, am I doing something amazing enough with this hour?’ I think that’s a recipe for self-consciousness and stress, nor is it meant to be a recipe for despair, where you just sit in the chair and can’t do anything, because it’s also depressing to contemplate.

Q: What has been the consequence for us to be so deeply tied to the clock?

[Oliver Burkeman]: I made the argument in the book that this way of thinking about time that we experience, would be much less common in pre-industrial world, and there may still be, some very isolated cultural contexts today where it persists a lot more.  There wouldn’t have been this sense of time as a separate thing…. your life is lived with this track running alongside it, that you must keep up with or extract the most value from, that seems like it gets faster, the older you get… all these things come from this notion of sort of an alienated relationship with time.

The idea of time as something distinct from us, which we are then having to fight and struggle with all the time would simply not have existed to the mediaeval English peasant, who would have existed much more in what anthropologists call ‘task orientation’…this sense of time where the rhythms of life just emerge from what you are doing, which tends to often be very closely yoked to the natural world, the changing seasons. They wouldn’t have seen themselves as trying to subdue or struggle with or maximise the value of this property, they would have just been this property.

Q: What do you think about the toxic-relationship between productivity & efficiency in modern culture?

[Oliver Burkeman]: I find it utterly captivating, for it’s not a given that efficiency is detrimental. Certainly, if an element of your personal or organisational workflow requires three hours instead of one, it’s beneficial to curtail that time. However, what frequently transpires, for myriad deep-seated psychological reasons we could delve into, is that this pursuit of efficiency morphs into a quest to encompass and master everything. This notion enchantingly lures us with the belief that if we could only hone our efficiency, we wouldn’t have to confront the arduous task of making tough decisions about time management. This is a misconception, one that spawns additional stress, unnecessary busyness, and a life perpetually fixated on the future, awaiting that moment of optimal efficiency. For instance, if locating your attire consumes an hour and a half each morning, enhancing efficiency is indeed necessary. But the belief that efficiency alone can extricate us from being swamped by either burdens or prospects, be they negative or positive, is where the illusion lies. Clearly, this is a sought-after ideal, and hence there’s a market for those who promise such a solution.

You’ve really prompted me to consider how these systems, first and foremost, come with considerable overheads. If it’s not an effective productivity system, you might find yourself investing an extra hour each day just to maintain it, which borders on the ridiculous – the irony of spending an hour or so just to keep your system operational. Moreover, there’s this notion that ‘productivity’ itself is inherently worthwhile. Whether it’s about simply ticking off tasks, regardless of their nature, or the idea of being a ‘productive person’ with a system meticulously tracking every task, there’s an assumption of inherent value. Clearly, these methods are only beneficial in terms of their outcomes. I’m curious, and perhaps you could shed some light on this, but doesn’t it somewhat resemble the way ‘management’ is often discussed? What exactly are we managing here? It’s like asking, ‘What’s the end goal?’

Q: When did we get trapped in ‘busyness’ and productivity?

[Oliver Burkeman]: The efficiency trap is very modern, but it’s now become a holdover from the Industrial Revolution. If you only relate to time, as if it were a certain kind of ‘thing’, like a natural resource… something that you could maximise, then you’re going to be in a perpetual state of psychological struggle because you won’t be using the right conceptual tools to live in time.

On the efficiency trap, implicit in almost any efficiency-based productivity technique is the idea, you’ll get through stuff faster and do more stuff, you’ll eventually get into this position where you are handling everything that comes at you in a calm and effective way. However, if the supply is infinite, (that’s true of emails), then you’re never actually going to get that position of mastery over time. What’s going to happen is that you just get busier and busier and move faster and faster!

We treat productivity tools as if they’re going to lead to our salvation, they’re absolutely not going to.

Q: How does productivity impact mental health?

[Oliver Burkeman]: I agree, and from my own experiences, I wouldn’t want to exaggerate my situation as someone overwhelmed by anxiety, but I am naturally quite an anxious person. These tools, especially the less effective ones and the glorification surrounding them, offer a promise of alleviating that anxiety. They suggest that if you feel burdened by more tasks than you can handle, here are methods to squeeze more into your schedule. Therefore, one might conclude that the end result could be a utopian state of calm and peace. However, considering we live in a world where input is virtually limitless – there’s no finality to the number of emails you might receive or tasks that could seem significant – simply completing them more quickly doesn’t mean reaching the end of them. Instead, it often leads to heightened anxiety as you realise this approach won’t achieve the desired outcome, potentially causing more slip-ups and increased tension in relationships depending on your circumstances. And if we venture into the quasi-spiritual realm, which ties into mental health, there’s always this notion that sanity or peace of mind is a destination we’re heading towards. But as I grow older, I become more convinced that these are states we need to consciously choose to inhabit. We need to decide, to the best of our ability, to lead a sane and grounded life. If that means not accomplishing everything, then so be it.

Q: How can we adapt to technologies which exist in vastly different timeframes to us?

[Oliver Burkeman]: There is this strange conundrum whereby email is a wonderful way of sending messages at a much higher volume than one ever could have done before, but precisely because of that, it attracts an even higher volume than you’re capable of handling yourself.

We use these tools to do things quicker – but that never help us get on top of everything because they systematically increase the size of the ‘everything’ – It’s a rigged game!

Being ‘online’ does feel sort of ‘godlike’, it does make you feel that the limitations of material human existence don’t apply quite so much. This godlike feeling explains some of the terrible behaviour on anonymous social media. It also gives you this sense that you somehow could become one with the metaverse. Here’s the thing. Whilst a computer can… You can’t actually type a sentence in zero seconds. That also really increases the sense of impatience and frustration that we have… it feels like we’re so close to kind of transcending time, that the remaining difference between ourselves and these amazingly fast working physical organisms, and the internet, is even more frustrating.

Q: How do we ease up on our day, rather than overpacking it?

[Oliver Burkeman]: I believe the most impactful approach involves a shift in perspective, a notion I fervently share, akin to a street preacher, which is to truly grasp the implications of our finite nature. Of course, there are numerous techniques and strategies we could discuss – and I won’t dwell on my course – but my aim is dual. Yes, I’ll provide a variety of methods for managing to-do lists and practices, but the crux of the matter is the internal liberation that comes from acknowledging that there will always be more to do than we can handle, and that certainty about the future is unattainable. It’s a form of defeat, yet immensely productive, because as long as you believe mastering everything is just extremely challenging, you’ll continue to struggle. Once you realize it’s not just difficult but actually impossible, that’s a transformative realisation. With this altered perspective, there are many specific ways to think about your day or how you track tasks. It all stems from reaching a point of utter realization, similar to what is often described in Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s about confronting the futility of striving for a god-like control over your time. Embracing this hopelessness can be surprisingly liberating.

Q: Why is patience important? And where has it gone?

[Oliver Burkeman]: Patience is really the act of letting things take the time that they take. It becomes more important as the world accelerates and as we have the opportunity technologically to do things faster and faster. There are many things that can’t continuously be accelerated, or which can only be accelerated to a certain point. Patience is what stops you getting sucked into warp-speed. We have this tendency now to try and make reality move faster than it can because, at some level, we want everything to happen instantaneously.

I’ve been really influenced by Harvard Art Historian, Jennifer Roberts, She gets her students to observe a painting for three hours solid. Historically, patience (as a virtue) was primarily preached to the powerless and dispossessed. It was a way of saying, you just settle for your lot, while other people do more exciting and rewarding things. For example, women in the home versus men in the public sphere would be one example of that. Now, patience is a form of control. Everything happens at light speed, the ability to resist that acceleration in certain contexts (reading a book, planning for your business…) is going to need to be a deliberate act – it adds so much value to your experience and outcome. Patience will get increasingly important as social acceleration continues.

Q: What are some of the tools & techniques you would suggest to help us reclaim our time?

[Oliver Burkeman]: One key concept I find crucial is what’s often termed as ‘paying yourself first with time’, or as I sometimes refer to it, abandoning the practice of ‘clearing the decks’ before attending to other matters. The premise is that when you’re swamped with myriad small tasks, which hinder you from engaging in more meaningful, impactful projects, it’s all too easy to believe that clearing these tasks first will pave the way for extended, uninterrupted time for significant work. However, as we’ve discussed and more, this scenario never materialises; there’s a perpetual cycle of deck-clearing. The true skill lies in allowing yourself to dedicate a few hours to vital projects, despite knowing that other tasks are pending and vying for your attention. This could be as simple as spending the first hour of your day on the most crucial task before checking your emails. There are more nuanced approaches too.

I’m particularly fond of a ‘fixed volume’ approach to productivity. Rather than waking up and pondering ‘what needs to be done today’ – an overwhelming and unrealistic query – consider how much time you’re willing or able to allocate to work, and what portion of that can be devoted to focused, deep work. Let’s say it’s three hours. Accept this as a fixed period, and then choose one or two tasks from the myriad possibilities to dedicate these hours to. It’s challenging to articulate, but there’s a shift where you make tangible progress on a few items rather than hypothetical advances on a thousand. You soon realise that while it may not meet some standards, it’s significantly more than what you’ve achieved in the past six months using other methods. It’s incremental and feels painfully slow, but it’s far more progress than you were previously making.

It’s true that this approach can lead to overambitious goals that might actually require six months to achieve, but thinking with the end in mind is incredibly helpful. It aligns with the notion of embracing limitations and finitude that I advocate. It serves as a decisive tool in making choices. When you focus on that immediate end-of-day goal, you can’t delude yourself into thinking that spending two and a half hours on a task that seemed appealing but is irrelevant to your goal is a sensible decision.

It’s also vital to structure your work in a way that allows for regular completion of tasks, however small or incremental they may be in the context of larger projects. This feeling of completing something and putting it behind you counters the tendency to be involved in everything simultaneously, which often leads to no real progress in any area. You take a task, focus on it, bring it to a certain stage, and then move on. After a few days or weeks of working in this manner, you’ll notice significantly more progress, which then builds the trust in this method. Of course, this approach does mean neglecting a lot of other tasks on any given day, and it takes courage to say, ‘I’m not going to do all these things that seem important because this is the one I’m committing to complete today’.

Q: How should leaders best look at productivity?

[Oliver Burkeman]: I see numerous applications for this approach in leadership and management. One key aspect is that if you, as a leader or manager, are prepared to confront the trade-offs yourself, it becomes easier to discuss them with your team. When you assign a primary task for the next week, it’s crucial to establish a culture where team members feel comfortable asking what should be deprioritised, acknowledging the finite nature of capacity, work, and energy. This kind of open dialogue prevents the illusion that there are no trade-offs, enabling more effective task management.

Also, thinking in terms of ‘packets’ or definable, completable tasks on a daily or weekly basis allows you to set clear boundaries for what you’re delegating. You can specify that you want something progressed from one stage to another by a certain deadline. This clarity helps team members integrate these tasks into their own limited schedules, balancing them with personal commitments like childcare or training for a weekend 10k run. It’s about enabling them to lead full, rich lives while still excelling in their roles.

Q: Why does procrastination matter?

[Oliver Burkeman]: Because we are finite, in a world of actions that exceed our capacities, on the one hand, procrastination, if you define it rigorously enough, is inevitable and happening all the time. If procrastination is neglecting things that matter, we are always going to be doing that in a world where there are more things that matter than you can find time for at any given point. That’s freeing and useful, because then you get to see that it’s a question of choosing what to neglect at each time. If you got that great business idea while you were hiking in the countryside, you were procrastinating on one thing, and you were not procrastinating on another thing, and you made a choice and it turned out that, that choice was a wise one in the in the context. For the same reason people, the kind of what I call ‘bad’ kind of procrastination, people don’t resist launching project or entering relationships or whatever, because bringing it into the world, necessarily entails an encounter with limitation. It’s always more pleasant to think about the ‘perfect’ article I’m going to write, then to write the article because writing the article cannot measure up to the perfect fantasy.

Q: How has work from home impacted time management and productivity?

[Oliver Burkeman]: Indeed, that’s an excellent question, comprising two distinct parts: the aspect of working from home and the integration of remote work with office-based, location-specific work. I view the shift towards remote work as an intensifier of all the issues we’ve been discussing. Broadly speaking, Covid-19 amplified pre-existing trends. If you’re someone attempting, though in vain, to encompass every possible input in your life, and if you rely on efficiency to master everything, then as you pointed out, erasing the boundaries between work and personal life only serves to consume more of your time in this unachievable quest to tackle an infinite workload. This is a clear case of Parkinson’s Law in hyperdrive. On the flip side, if you’re able to develop an understanding of your limitations and confront them rather than evade them, the flexibility of working from home can be incredibly empowering. It offers the chance, to a certain degree, to set your own schedule, aligning work with your peak energy times, free from the rigid schedule of office life.

However, I’m curious – and I don’t have a definitive answer – about whether hybrid working might ultimately be perceived as the worst of both worlds, rather than the best. It’s important to avoid scenarios where employees resent office days. While being in the office can wonderfully complement work through serendipitous, face-to-face interactions, if it’s viewed as an unwelcome interruption to the freedoms afforded on other days, it could lead to negative consequences.

Q: How can we embrace, rather than fear, our finitude?

[Oliver Burkeman]: This argument that we need to embrace our finiteness to be creative and to focus on what matters, it is certainly opposed to some notion of eternal life where you just keep on going in your current state forever.

From at least some versions of Christianity you get this notion that there is a timeless realm to which you are headed, but the current one is still extremely limited and finite. Your job in the current one is to embrace your finitude, but to do things for the glorification of God because later on you will get your reward. In Buddhism, as I understand it, there is this infinite, and your highest goal is to dissolve into it and to be so finite, that you step off the wheel of taking finite form.

The longing for infinity, the longing that goes beyond our finitude is an essential part of everything that we are doing here. This being distinct from the confusion on delusion that, you have all the time in the world while you’re on the planet.  The way that I’m talking about the infinite realm of possibilities in this book is a way of keeping the sense of the infinite alive, because it’s there all the time, like the infinite realm of what we could do, compared to our fight finitude is always present and haunting us.

There’s an important distinction between keeping your mind on something infinite as a source of inspiration, or as part of some wider cosmology, versus the thing that so many of us go through our lives doing.

[Vikas: Why then do we waste time doom-scrolling on social media, or finding comfort in the menial?]

[Oliver Burkeman]: To feel the fact of our limitation… that every choice we make means neglecting other choices… that we probably can’t fulfil all the expectations that the world has of us… it’s overwhelming! So, we distract ourselves to cope.

Evolution has no particular interest in your living authentically or being fulfilled and if comfort is the easiest way to keep you going from day to day, then evolution will be ‘designed’ to seek comfort and you will have to actively overcome that.

Q: What does it mean to use our time well?

[Oliver Burkeman]: I think about moments in life… caring for my son in the few months after he was born…. helping friends through difficult times… these are the moments where you have that deep, intuitive sense of being in the right place, doing the right thing – even if what you’re doing may not be particularly ‘fun,’ and in some cases may be very sad and unpleasant. That is a felt-sense of spending your time on the right thing, though very difficult to quantify.

We have to think beyond the obvious. We all know that we need good relationships, enough sleep, time in nature, awe, wonder, we all know that… the interesting question is why we don’t feel naturally inclined to go in these directions in our daily lives.

I’m speaking as someone who has been on the road of trying productivity hacks, apps, and everything that asserts to be able to make me 10x faster at working. I get excited about those things – but some of the most important things in life – in fact – a lot of the most important things in life, don’t come from moving faster. When you do nothing, you aren’t in this nihilistic state!

Keep perspective… When you look at the history of the cosmos, the difference between having several decades left and having several months left begins to seem less significant.

Q: How can we reclaim our lives??

[Oliver Burkeman]: I’d like to share two points. Firstly, regarding a method of organising to-do lists that I find quite effective. Everyone has their preferences, and some may need to align with corporate workflow systems, so this is a general guideline. If you adopt a technique similar to what David Allen suggested in ‘Getting Things Done’ by creating a single, comprehensive list, it can be quite impactful. Take a notebook or open a text file and jot down everything on your mind, resulting in an intimidatingly extensive list. Then, create a second to-do list with a fixed number of slots – let’s be generous and say 10. The practice involves transferring 10 tasks from the long list to the short one. The rule is that you can’t add more tasks to the list of 10 until you’ve completed a few, thus intentionally creating a bottleneck in your workflow. This is a valuable strategy because it mirrors the inherent bottleneck of being a finite human. It transforms an unconscious constraint into a conscious one, forcing you to prioritise what matters most right now from a seemingly endless list.

Secondly, beyond systems and techniques, if there’s a project close to your heart, a relationship you want to nurture, or a hobby you’re passionate about but aren’t currently dedicating time to, my advice is to simply do something towards it. Don’t worry about establishing a daily habit or rhythm just yet; just spend some time on it, even if it’s just 20 minutes, but not necessarily every day. This approach can be more effective than trying to build a habit, which can sometimes make the task seem more daunting. A classic example is someone wanting to learn meditation or get back into running but feeling too busy for a daily commitment. My suggestion is to do it just once, without thinking about the next time. This single act can be incredibly powerful, cutting through complex systems and techniques, and can slightly shift your world. Later, you can consider repeating it, but focus on that one time first.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.